Defense budget hearings: Lots to learn for those who pay attention
By Walter Pincus,
Congressional hearings on the defense budget can be a bore, and there are so many of them — 11 so far this week.
But seeing them or reading transcripts provides both information and a feel for how the destinies of senior civilian officials and top-ranking Defense Department officials are controlled by legislators, be they knowledgeable or not.
Did you know, for example, that it costs $850,000 to maintain a single soldier for a year in Afghanistan?
Defense Department Comptroller Robert Hale offered that figure Monday at a Senate Budget Committee hearing where Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was the main witness. Hale explained that the number included special allowances for being there, the money spent for supporting other coalition forces and even a share for costs of the organization that produces protective devices used to discover improvised explosive devices.
At that same hearing, you would have learned of an ongoing investigation into actions at the Madigan Army Medical Center outside Tacoma, Wash. Soldiers originally found to have PTSD were stripped of that diagnosis by Madigan screeners and instead were found to have “other behavioral health disorders that didn’t come with the same level of benefits,” according to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Murray said that after an independent review of some soldiers at Walter Reed, some diagnoses were changed back to PTSD. More soldiers are awaiting review.
Murray questioned Panetta about an allegation that the Madigan decision to change PTSD diagnosis “seems” to have been related to the higher benefits that would go with having PTSD.
Panetta responded that he became concerned when he read a report on the Madigan Center and that it was under investigation. He said he had “just met with a couple last night. And they had to go through hell in order to be able to get the diagnosis that was required here. And that should not happen.” He added, “I’ve directed our personnel undersecretary to look at this issue and to correct it. . . . It’s unacceptable now to have the process we have in place.”
At previous hearings, Panetta had put off answering how he would meet sequestration, the 2011 Budget Control Act requirement to cut an additional $500 billion in national security spending over the next 10 years, starting in January 2013. On Monday, he said he was waiting for guidance from the White House through the Office of Management and Budget and he assumed serious planning would have to begin “sometime in the summer.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said that meant that Congress would have to act prior to the summer if it was to head off sequester, which Panetta has said would be disastrous to the new national security strategy.
Hale added that Pentagon and OMB lawyers were studying how the across-the-board sequester cuts would be applied, if it came to that. In a letter to Congress in November, Panetta had indicated a common percentage cut would be applied to every single Defense Department program. But Hale said the percentage reductions would probably apply to accounts — such as Navy shipbuilding or Army operations and maintenance — and there would be flexibility on how they were made to individual programs.
As it had in earlier fiscal 2013 budget hearings, the Obama administration’s plan to reduce some costs for defense health care by raising retired military personnel contributions for their Tricare coverage drew opposition from most senators on the panel.
Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) talked about a letter from a serviceman about to retire who heard about the Tricare increase. He wrote the senator that “he has a sister that’s on welfare, and his sister pays nowhere near the costs that he does, and so he’s not sure that the military is such a good deal compared to welfare.” Enzi added, “That seems to me to be a terrible comparison.”
Panetta responded that the recommendations for Tricare increases would be based on a retiree’s income level. And as he had done in earlier hearings, Panetta said Tricare is “much less in cost than the private sector in terms of those same health-care benefits. So it’s still a pretty good deal that we provide for retirees even though we are asking for these additional fees.”
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) asked why the military is being told they have to increase their Tricare payments while “we’re not asking any other government employee to do that?” He added, “Why ask the military and not . . . maybe unionized members of the federal workforce?”
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) added: “I just worry about your ability to go to our military and to ask them to do this, to make the sacrifice, when civilian employees of the federal workforce, including members of Congress, because we get the same health plan, aren’t making a similar sacrifice. . . . I just worry about what message we’re sending to our military with that.”
Panetta found a bit of support for his health-care effort. Portman, a former OMB director under President George W. Bush, noted that in 2000, defense health-care costs were $17.4 billion. Twelve years later, they were $50 billion. He asked Panetta, “Do you think you’re doing enough on health care in this first stage, and what more can be done?”
Panetta, who has been generally criticized for any increase, called it a first step.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) jumped in with his support. He had heard Panetta take his lumps at a Feb. 14 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. This time, Graham, an Air Force reserve officer, pointed out that “we haven’t had a premium adjustment since 1995.”
With a series of rapid-fire questions that often is his style, Graham, an attorney, summed up the Defense Department’s Tricare case: “Secretary Panetta, the entitlement part of the DOD budget, health-care costs, is competing with guns and weapons systems. Is that correct?” Panetta replied, “Correct.”
“And you cannot sustain this. This is what you’re telling the Congress?” Again Panetta replied, “That’s correct.”
“It is absolutely essential you get control over your health-care costs. Is that correct, Secretary Panetta?”
“That’s correct,” was the reply.
“If you got a better way of adjusting premiums, let me know, but it has to change,” Graham said.
Panetta replied that he was open to change. With that, Graham rested his support for the payment increase.
You learn something worth knowing at every hearing.
To read Walter Pincus’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/ national-security.